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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .

Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan
Michael Griffin

London: Pluto Press, 2001
312pp. Hb.: 19.99; ISBN 0-7453-1274-8.

In this book, Griffin examines the forces that swept the Taliban to power in 1996. Between '92 and '96, rival mujehedin factions divided Afghanistan into a patchwork of mini-states. The president - Rabbani - was little more than 'the mayor of Kabul' (p.126). The Taliban's success in breaking this deadlock owed much to Pakistan's military and strategic assistance. Moreover, being a predominantly Pashtun group, its ranks were swelled by defectors from other Pashtun forces opposed to the minority Tajik government. But its victory was psychological as well as military. The Taliban gave the impression that it was above the factional fray. It posed as a unifying force that would restore order, and respect for tradition and religion. All deeply uncontroversial.

Afghans soon discovered that their new rulers were not the neutral 'peacekeeping' force they had claimed to be but 'a Pashtun aberration, which used religious purism as a form of terror and hired bullies to implement it' (p.45). Far from respecting tradition, they launched a cultural and religious revolution that overturned the traditional order. Their misogyny amounted to 'gynaeophobia' (p.60). The imposition of martial law was thinly disguised as sharia and the regime's thugs sheltered under the title 'mullah'.

A similar progression from cautious enthusiasm to disenchantment characterised the Western response to the Taliban. At first, Western interests and the interests of Pakistan coincided: both wanted a strong, centralised government to emerge in Afghanistan. UN officials and Western diplomats spoke of 'Afghan solutions to Afghan problems' and the 'trade-off' between security and human rights. The US and Saudi Arabia also had commercial reasons for backing the strongest. However, the Taliban's excesses and, above all, its protection of Bin-Laden, transformed it into a regime with which few governments mindful of domestic opinion could do business.

'Reaping the Whirlwind' is more than a fascinating account of the Taliban movement. It also explores the recent history of Afghanistan, and examines how geopolitical interests shaped foreign intervention. Theoretically, Griffin aligns himself with those who argue that ethnicity has more explanatory power than ideology, but little space is given to theory. Indeed, at times the book is too obviously a collation of newspaper reports - a first draft. But if Griffin occasionally drowns the reader in a mass of detail, he never over-simplifies, and to explain how the Taliban was able to seize power and how it was perceived both within Afghanistan and abroad, takes subtlety.

Rose Hankey

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